Emancipatory Mimesis

A Column by Anselm Franke

Issue no5
okt / nov 2017

Anselm Franke is since beginning this year columnist of Metropolis M. This is the complete version of his current column on the this year's Berlin Biennale, which was published in Metropolis M No 4-216 Sharing.

In recent years, a trend has emerged in contemporary art, which sets out to turn the collapse of oppositions and critical difference into an aesthetic spectacle. The recent Berlin Biennale, put together by the DIS art collective, is an example: a biennial exhibition that acts like a corporate brand, in which art and advertisement and whatever else it might entail is levelled out and subsumed into abstract circulation, with a promise of total exchangeability. This projection is perpetuated by investments of mediated, narcissistic parties in a Baudrillardian dance of simulations and detached signifiers. The post-net generation makes use of mimetic strategies and mimicry, but these no longer aim to expose or identify with the imitated object or environment by means of a mimetic shock of difference. Instead, they mimic an unbounded capitalism and the nexus of control and communication that presides over the logic of the digital. For most reviewers, a little ambivalence here or there, intended or not, seems to constitute sufficient proof that this operation is intellectually worthwhile, even if only as a symptom of the contemporary condition. One of the Berlin Biennale's slogans ― 'Why should Fascists have all the Fun?' ― convinced me that this is not the case.1 Instead, what we are dealing with is a form of intellectual weakness, verging on nihilism, symptomatic of the current post-democratic ideological and affective tide. Mimicking capitalism and the commodity space it engenders is, of course, nothing new in the arts. What has acquired a new quality is the way the purging of critical differences and distinctions has itself turned into a simulation of value.

Walter Benjamin imagined the shock of difference and the jolt of life as the sudden flutter emitted by the wings of a butterfly, which until that very moment had been indistinct from the anorganic backdrop onto which it had morphed ― a rebellion of life and difference. With important distinctions, one could use this image to describe many of the mimetic strategies of quotation, camouflage and appropriation used by artists in the 20th century. Now, however, the vectors seem to have been reversed. Nowhere to be seen is there any sudden beating of wings. What we see is rather the opposite: blending into deadlock, producing indifference to the all-consuming and subsuming sphere of digital capitalism. To be sure, mimicry as a critical operation has always been ambivalent, and perhaps too often and too quickly celebrated, losing sight of the political currency of certain utterances that shift all too easily from being resilient to merely acting as compensation for the lack of political change. Mimicry can bring an otherwise un-articulable background to the fore, in situations where difference needs to be politicized in order to denaturalize power. It can explode illusions of identity from within, by the simple act of exhibiting them. It can be a performative practice, entailing a conscious inversion of the societal regime of gender relations, difference and identity, thereby sending the normative and authoritative 'mimetic address' that assigns our places in social hierarchies back to the sender, breaking with the forceful compulsion to identify. Mimicry can collapse distinctions and become a defensive adaptation to an overpowering threat ― something that, in the 1930s, for example, art critic Carl Einstein referred to as ‘defence against death through the anticipation of death’. There is yet another mechanism of inversion, which may be the most common. Mimetic critique may fall prey to a curious 'flip-flop of power and assimilation', which unwittingly 'adds to the power of the thing critiqued', rather than subtracting from that power.2 This latter mechanism seems to have become the modus operandi in the arts ― the flip-flop itself becoming the sign of distinction and value. This is perhaps what DIS calls 'postcritical' ― and it amounts to a situation where their work is seen in one context (the art discourse) as critical mimicry (nevertheless), while in another (the corporate world), it is merely affirmative. It gains its surplus value from feeding off the fact that art professionals have been trained to interpret affirmation as the default mode of criticism, simply by finishing it.

What is happening here is more than just a successful mimicry of the commodity form accomplished when the semiotic product is popular or selling. It is a spectacle of a magic of value creation ex nihilo, which falls into one with the performative staging of the 'curious flip-flop of power'. What is captured in this flip-flop is perhaps a capitalist dream condition ― the same condition that the past two decades have seen failing on a grand scale on the stage of world politics. It is the promise that the 'dematerialization' through digitization would truly outdo the hierarchies of industrial capitalism and create a sphere of universal communicability and exchange, an 'economy of mind', in which the mere play of signifiers detached from real-world referents would put value into being. Ever since the detachment of the US dollar from the gold standard, the dream of the information age has been financialization: pure exchange value detached and floating, a free-from-use value, and the production of goods brought into being by informational machines communicating with each other through social behaviour models and algorithms betting on the future, reifying on grand scale the social relations that it quantifies and valorizes. Only the exchange of abstract signs could create value: this is the horizon of disembodied 'semiocapitalism' (thus obscuring the need for biopolitical concretion). Creation of value ex nihilo: this is the power of which the financial elites dream, and on which they like to pride themselves ― as if they could create a world in the absence of an exploited class. It is for this wishful absence that the artist is a stand-in.

Financialized abstraction and global circulation have not generated a happy future of magic value creation and universal exchange. They have produced increased incommensurability and conflict on an ever greater scale, while simultaneously reifying social relations. What we have instead is the inscription of subjectivity into a grand and overpowering communications matrix through Big Data, vast spaces of dispossession, and the return of the great geo-political game. Only the new financial elites prefer to still believe in this dream. They flock to the spectacle of contemporary art in search of self-fashioning lifestyle options, and in search of that projection of a future digital sphere of universal communicability. Therein they envision the magic of the creation of value ex nihilio, through the mere performativity of social signs. This is what the aesthetic spectacles staged by DIS and the post-net generation deliver: a consistent deferral, a programmatic denial of a failed capitalist dream.

In an address at Moscow University in 1988, President Ronald Reagan articulated his version of this dream. He did not invent this dream of a dematerialized economy and creation of value ex nihilo, but he turned it into a capitalist religion. He spoke in front of a mural of the October revolution, pitting revolution against revolution. The emblem of Reagan’s revolution was the “tiny silicon chip”, which would allow humanity to break “through the material conditions of existence” to a dematerialized world of information and code: “Like a chrysalis, we're emerging from the economy of the Industrial Revolution—an economy confined to and limited by the Earth's physical resources—into {…} “the economy in mind," in which there are no bounds on human imagination and the freedom to create is the most precious natural resource.” Invoking the "ancient wisdom" of the bible he stated: “In the beginning was the spirit, and it was from this spirit that the material abundance of creation issued forth.” This translates seamlessly into a world in which informational code is seen as primary, and material concretion as secondary.

When Reagan invoked the “spirit” he talked about a horizon that had been delineated by cybernetics in the 1940s: based on information theory and the digital computer, “reality” had been put on new grounds: re-conceptualized as information system, humans, machines and nature were presumably made communicable to each other. The enormous cultural appeal of this claim, which subsumes so many desires up to the trend towards "relational ontologies" is partially owed to the fact that this is not simply describing a techno-utopia, but also promises a return to a non-alineated, potentially enchanted, “ecological” condition. Cybernetics appropriated or inherited what had before been a modern bewilderment over the “being-in-communication” of so-called primitive societies, their mode of “participation” in all things. This is the backdrop against which one can understand Marshall McLuhan’s insistence that in the information age humanity would go “tribal” again. Contemporary capitalism, like the notorious primitivism of Western thought that McLuhan identified, stands in the signs of "indifference" - an indifference that is no longer articulated as a world of magic transformations as found in "primitive ritual", but in universal exchangeability. This is why it is so relatively easy to exploit the primordial relationality of the subject, constituted in its modulated social milieus. The cultural power of neoliberalism was based on this ideological narrative of dematerialization-as-redemption from the “failures of modernity” as well as from actual capitalist contradictions and relations of exploitation. In the world of a postnet inflected art system, it seems that clinging on to dreaming the dream of this ideology is what binds together the world’s 1% with the arts. But the triumphalism of defensive adaptation and magic value creation can hardly hide the fact that defensive adaptation remains just that: an attempt at saving one's live by giving it up.

Anselm Franke

is schrijver, curator en Head of Visual Arts and Film bij Haus der Kulturen der Welt

1 Part of a work by Babak Radboy ―'not the creative director' of the Berlin Biennale

2 M. T Taussig, Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999


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